Mayor touts economic plan

By Kaley Fowler

By Megan Purazrang, Contributing Writer

The Chicago region could see its economy grow as it implements a new development plan that seeks to use strategic job and networking ideas to compete against

other regions.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international association that assists governments in programs and research that fight poverty and foster prosperity, partnered with the City of Chicago, the state of Illinois, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Chicagoland Chambers of Commerce in drafting the plan.

“Territorial Review of the Chicago Tri-State Metropolitan Area,” the proposal for the economic growth of the greater Chicago region, was unveiled March 9 during a press conference at the Hilton Chicago Hotel, 720 S. Michigan Ave., where Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined policy leaders from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana to discuss the region’s future.

“Though we have great economic advantages and strengths, the last 10 years was a lost decade for the Chicago area, from economic growth to job creation,” said Emanuel, noting that the city needs to pull itself out of a long period of economic stagnation. “We cannot afford two decades back-to-back that are lost.”

In what Emanuel called “an economic blueprint,” the OECD focused on five key areas to promote positive economic growth.

The first area includes expanding innovation and entrepreneurship and improved coordination of the skills of the labor force and the needs of employers, according to the review packet. This would require training lower-skilled workers to perform at a higher level, which can be resolved by adapting school curriculums on a citywide basis.

“For all of us, at least in the elected official positions, we’re tested, and the measurement of our success is not about whether we get reelected but whether businesses can grow and families can thrive,” Emanuel said. “Think globally and act locally. That is the best job creation economic growth strategy you can have.”

Other recommendations include enhancing the region’s presence as a transportation and supply chain hub in North America; understanding the potential human capital with the primary goal of growing, retaining and attracting talent to the area; becoming a regional leader in the bilateral trade and foreign investment, making the region a global player; and improving the region’s position in the green and clean technology sectors, including green building design and energy-efficient services, changes in public transit and reductions in traffic congestion.

According to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, the tri-state metro region has the potential to be a leading area, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. He said the resources available here are vital seeds with which to grow a stronger economic foundation for the future.

“The tri-state Chicago region compares well among the metro regions in the OECD,” Gurria said. “In fact, the Chicago region is one of the richest metropolitan areas in the OECD, and it has a number of key assets.”

However, the plan will take a while to make an impact on Chicago and its neighboring regions, and its success will depend on cooperation from all agencies involved, according to Tom Guevara, deputy assistant secretary of Regional Affairs for the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The depressed state of the U.S. economy during the last several years has taken its toll on regions throughout the country. However, metro areas like New York and Los Angeles are recovering at a more efficient rate than Chicago, according to the report.

“Too often we think about competitiveness in local and not global terms,” said Guevara, emphasizing the importance of not competing against one another for jobs. “When neighbor fights neighbor, we end up in a race to the bottom.”

The unemployment rate in the tri-state Chicago region has remained at approximately 10 percent since 2009, but problems began long before the recession, he said.

“The study identified a number of challenges,” Gurria said. “If employment in the Chicago tri-state metropolitan region had grown at the national rate over the past 20 years, the region would have almost 600,000 additional jobs today.”

Not only is the lack of jobs a challenging issue overall, but it’s worse among different ethnic groups, he said.

OECD’s research shows that the unemployment rate among African-Americans is estimated to be four times greater than that of whites.

According to Gurria, unemployment is also directly related to skill level, and OECD found that low-skilled workers couldn’t find jobs. He said jobs requiring a medium degree of skill are not being filled because employers are having trouble finding people who are qualified.

As a result, companies with jobs requiring high-skilled workers are deciding to go outside the region, and young graduate students are searching for jobs outside of Chicago. But the framework of the plan will help create solutions for the region, said Guevara, adding that progress is needed to help keep up with the “rapid pace of change.”

“Regions are the building blocks of our national economy … Every country needs competitive, dynamic regions if it is to achieve its economic and social objectives at the national level,” he said. “We need to develop a common understanding of our region’s innovation ecosystems and the key challenges they face and develop a common goal for action.”